It Takes One to Know One: My journey from fear of erasure to acceptance of my own nonbinary identity

I have been an out and proud member of the LGBT+ community for nearly twenty-four years. When I came out in the 90s the community was still entrenched in the butch/femme dynamic wars. The androgyny wave that swept in with second-wave feminism, wherein butch lesbians were pushed to the side and marginalized, made to feel that if they didn’t change their ways they were as bad as heterosexual men, i.e. oppressors of women, hit lesbians full force. Some butches decided to transition, feeling safer hiding behind testosterone, than walking the streets as misunderstood butch women loving women. While others kept on and forged ahead, doing their best to get along in a world that no longer seemed to want them. Then, when the 90s hit somehow, unbeknownst to me (I was in high school at the time and not paying attention) butches were back and they had femme girlfriends who loved them and they were visibly sexy on the covers of magazines (i.e. k.d lang on the cover of Rolling Stone with Cindy Crawford) and in music videos (anything Melissa Etheridge) and eventually in tv shows (Queer as Folk and The L Word). It was now safe to be butch in the streets again. It was even sexy. What it wasn’t cool to do…have a butch girlfriend if you were butch. The hetero dynamic was once again in place, and lesbians who veered off the path (unless they were both femmes) were seen as the other.

This was bad luck for me, as being a butch attracted to other butches, however, I did eventually get a girlfriend. While those around us treated us well, there still wasn’t representation about our type of coupling anywhere to be seen. And trust me, I looked for it. I looked for it in movies and I looked for it in novels and short story erotica. The latter was the only place I really found that representation. This would go a long way in later years to determine the types of stories I would write. I wanted to see more representation of people like me. Since I couldn’t find it, I decided to write it.

That being said, this was the environment I “grew up” in. What can I say? Marginalization breeds contempt. That’s not an excuse, but it is the reality. Trans rights were still in their infancy in the 90s. The gay community, as a whole, were more focused on AIDS research and marriage equality, job stability and striking down antiquated sodomy laws. So, the trans community was pushed aside to start a movement on their own. When they did start to stand up and be counted and have their voices heard, many in the lesbian community took umbrage. I can’t speak for how the femmes felt or why they felt it, as that was not my experience, but I can say that many of us butches felt that we were once again being pushed to the side. That our way of being queer was going to soon be passe. I have written about this academically before and referred to it as “the fear of erasure,” because that’s what it was. The fear of being irrelevant, forgotten, thrown away. The thought that we must assimilate or be left behind, and that eventually there would be no more butches left. This was how I, along with many others, felt for quite some time. Many still feel this way. I’m glad to say that this is no longer a fear I suffer from. I don’t say that proudly, as it’s nothing to be proud of. But rather, shame-facedly for ever feeling like that in the first place.

My change of heart? mind? spirt? was simple: in 2005 or so, the person I was dating at the time (for three years at that point) told me they wanted to transition to male. I was surprised, as it seemed to come up sudden like, but upon reflection, it made since for who I knew him to be. I accepted this news and we stayed together for another two years. What finally broke us up was something completely different and was not related to his transness. During those two years, however, while he was taking the steps he needed to feel at home in his body, I was reading, I was meeting trans people. He would hand me books to read and introduce me to friends of his from the trans community. I got to know them and heard their stories, realized that they weren’t the other to be feared.

My next relationship followed a similar trajectory: a few years in, my spouse made the same announcement as my ex and suddenly I had to learn a new word: husband. I now had a husband instead of a wife. By this time, however, my process was shorter, thanks to what I had learned, about myself, as well as trans folks, in my previous relationship. By then I was counselling the girlfriends of other young trans guys, telling them that their feelings were valid and telling the young trans guys not to get lost in themselves during this process of transition, to take her feelings into consideration. But also, that they can both get through it if they try. When asked how I had been able to come to terms so easily, I told them that it wasn’t so easy, that it took time, and it took learning more about transgenderism and talking to more transgender people.

Cut to five years later. Despite my stubbornness and occasional reluctance to adapt, I had finally admitted that I fit into the category of “nonbinary”. I had always felt this way, that I didn’t fit into the parameters of male or female, but I just did the best with the F because that was my legal gender and I also knew I wasn’t male. It was just easier for practical purposes. Being able to finally accept, to find a term that defined me, was very liberating. Along with this new identity, I also realized that it was okay to say I had never liked my given name, that it forced a gender upon me by its very connotations that I never asked for, never approved of, and never wanted. I didn’t have to keep it; I could change it. Finally, one day in the Fall of 2019, I decided to tell the world that I now wanted to be known as Samuel, though my best friend replied, “I’m going to call you Sam,” and thus I became and thus I am. Though, I would still like it if someone would call me Samuel.

My point in writing all this self-confession is a simple one: people can change. We can have some pretty backward, messed up ways of thinking, but once we educate ourselves on the things we don’t know and bring in the human factor, we expand ourselves and open ourselves up to wonderful people and things. It takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t expect immediate change from your loved ones, or any change in some cases. But it’s possible, anything’s possible.

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